Two separate military probes were under way today into the deaths of six Camp Pendleton-based Marines and a seventh stationed in Arizona who were killed when two helicopters collided during a nighttime training exercise on the outskirts of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
One investigation seeks to assign responsibility for Wednesday's crash and the other is looking at how to make inherently dangerous combat training safer by looking at equipment maintenance, training and procedures leading up to the crash, according to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar's public affairs office.
The local Marines killed in the crash belonged to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at MCAS Miramar. However, they were stationed at Camp Pendleton, along with their aircraft, Miramar spokeswoman 1st Lt. Maureen Dooley said. MAW Marines train in Yuma on a weekly basis, according to Dooley.
The crash occurred about 8 p.m. Wednesday when a AH-1W "Cobra" and a UH-1 "Huey" aircraft collided in flight over a remote part of the Yuma Training Range Complex. Two Marines were aboard the Cobra, and five in the Huey.
No one survived the collision, which occurred in a section of the installation that extends into the far southeastern reaches of California, near the Chocolate Mountains.
The identities of the deceased Marines, who reportedly had been scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan, were withheld pending family notification. Public release of the names was expected to be on hold until later today, according to Dooley.
Col. Robert Kuckuk, commanding officer of MCAS Yuma, said on Thursday that preliminary information about the "tremendous tragedy" at his base was inconclusive.
"Exactly what happened during this particular operation, I don't know," he said. "Was it a live-fire exercise? I don't know, except that I know that they were carrying ordnance."
Kuckuk said training in the part of the station where the accident occurred -- a locale he described as "an excellent simulation for both Iraq and Afghanistan" -- would continue as investigators work to determine what caused the collision.
"The Marine Corps ... will find out exactly what happened," he told news crews. "If we can take steps to prevent it from happening again, we most certainly will."
The colonel noted that the duties of military air crews are unavoidably hazardous, even during training and despite exhaustive safety measures. Over the last several years, accidents involving the same types of helicopters have claimed the lives of more than a dozen military personnel, most of them based in the San Diego area.
— City News Service